Movie review: On the Basis of Sex (2018)

On the Basis of Sex celebrates the early career of a most beloved Supreme Court Justice, the Notorious R.B.G. The movie also depicts some of the real-life discrimination that women faced in the twentieth century, from getting an education to being unhireable even after graduating from elite colleges with top marks. Women in essence were treated as second-class citizens and wards of their husbands.

I wondered at the grit Ginsburg managed to exude after the continuous discriminations or micro-discriminations. How does one spring back again and again after unrelenting encounters with people that do not see your value or your humanity? (Something that could be asked about any group not part of the dominate power structure in a society.)

And I wondered at her thoughts about this movie. How much did it diverge from her life? How much did it leave out? How much had she forgotten about or was pushed out of her lived experience until the movie reminded her?

The movie is definitely a feel-good movie. Her marriage with her late husband is legendary. He was a devoted father who helped raise the children and was a staunch supporter and encourager of Ruth in all that she did. Even if this view of him is even marginally accurate, he was definitely not a man of his times.

The movie shows Ginsburg moving in a sea of white men. She attended college and law school in the 1950s, when the country had moved to the right. After the war, women were pushed out of jobs for returning GIs or fled back to the safety of domestic bliss (depending on the narrative you subscribe to).

In one scene, Ginsburg attends a dinner party hosted by the dean for the women entering law school that year. He requests them to answer the question why they deserved to be given a spot in the Harvard Law School that should have been given to a (white) man. Meant to intimidate, belittle, and throw the women off their game.

Ginsburg’s unrelenting determination is amazing. When her husband, a year ahead of her in law school, is unable to attend classes because of illness, she shows up—to the surprise of professors and probably students—to attend his classes for him. What a heavy burden on top of her own first-year classes and family duties (but also a fascinating opportunity for her to get a jump on second-year law classes).

She is, unexpectedly, denied employment after graduation. Her goal was to be a practicing lawyer at a firm. No one would entertain the thought of hiring her. Instead, she ends up as a professor, which the movie portrays as not her choice.

The movie then fast forwards to the 1970s and her classes on sex discrimination and equal rights in the law. The student body is much different. As if the social revolution suddenly happened. Even her daughter has joined in but Ginsburg is a bit taken aback by her daughter’s strength and audacity.

Her husband Martin, a tax lawyer, brings a tax case to her attention. It had the unusual possibility of becoming a precedent for equal rights under the law—if only they could convince the man being denied his tax deduction and the ACLU to take the case to court. Ginsburg started her successful, lifelong strategy to legally build equal rights under the law with this case.

Ginsburg is not, the movie portrays, all strength and self-confidence. She wavers and has doubts. She fails at a mock trial for upcoming arguments at an appeals court. She stumbles in her initial arguments at the court but rebounds during the rebuttal.

The people who give her strength and believe in her are her husband and daughter. Without them, especially her progressive husband, maybe Ruth Bader Ginsburg would not have been the woman and justice she is. And maybe equal rights under the law would not be where it is today. At least that is what the movie suggests.

Movie review: The Final Year (2017)

I was excited to see this documentary, thinking that a movie that harkened back to a better time might be uplifting.

I was wrong.

I found The Final Year profoundly dispiriting. It was reliving the dashed hopes and expectations of the lsat presidential election. When asked about the upcoming election while on foreign diplomatic trips, senior Obama administration officials assured foreigners that Hillary would be president. Trump would never win.

The overconfidence that people had in the unexpected that became reality was painful to watch. Even more painful was an election results viewing party at the home of Samantha Power. Her home was filled with female notables like Madeleine Albright and Gloria Steinem. They watched in deflated horror as the results came in.

Ben Rhodes sputtered, unable to get any word out in his stunned disbelief when interviewed for the documentary. The unthinkable had happened. What was to happen to all of the projects that they had worked so hard on? Would they all be undone?

From the vantage point of several years later, we knew the answer to that. Sadly, yes.

The Final Year follows Obama and some high-level officials (Susan Rice, Samantha Power, Ben Rhodes, and John Kerry). It seems almost unthinkable that at one time the US government was run by intelligent, capable, hard-working officials with only the best interests of the US at heart.

But there they were, working together and with other foreign officials to try to solve problems such as climate change and Iran’s status as a nuclear power. What they devoted so much of their lives and energy toward is in tatters. How utterly dispiriting.

I wonder what the producers of the documentary thought. Did they start on this path of documenting the last year of the Obama presidency thinking that the administration would be passing the baton to a more traditional presidency? Did they start the project with any thought that things would turn out so differently, that they would be documenting the Obama presidency right before its accomplishments were all unraveled?



“If we are to have another contest in the near future of our national existence, I predict that the dividing line will not be Mason and Dixon’s but between patriotism and intelligence on the one side, and superstition, ambition and ignorance on the other.” ~ Ulysses S. Grant

Book review: The Fiery Trial

The Fiery Trial both traces the evolution of Lincoln’s ideas and polices about slavery and that of the nation’s from the 1830s through the end of the Civil War. As usual what I thought I knew about Lincoln, slavery, and abolition turned out to be a bit simplistic. Reality is always more nuanced and complicated.

Foner provides a detailed walkthrough of the politics, history, and views about slavery from Lincoln’s time in Illinois through the remainder of his life. At times it did feel like I was trying to drink from a firehose. Foner patiently lays out the details, walking the reader through the ideas percolating in the nation and swirling around Lincoln. The details can be overwhelming and feel ploddingly tedious. But he is laying out an argument based on letters, speeches, and newspaper articles to show how Lincoln did not start out as the Great Emancipator. Far from it.

The picture painted of Lincoln is of a man with little interaction with blacks—slave or free. He just didn’t have opportunity to interact with them or give slavery much more than a passing thought until he moved into the presidency. Yes, he expressed that he personally was opposed to slavery, but fighting slavery was not his concern.

Lincoln was a product of his time and place. His time was one of slavery, the view that whites were superior, and that the Constitution protected slavery and states’ rights. In contrast, he was a firm believer in the Union and protecting it at all costs.

This book disabused me of many ideas. Nothing was black and white, so to speak. Rather than the war being about North vs. South, abolitionists vs. slaveowners, Foner shows a very nuanced political and social country. Democrats existed in the North. Some Democrats, like the future vice president and president Andrew Johnson, were Unionists, who sided with the North despite being racists, slaveowners, or supporters of slavery.

Not all Republicans were against slavery, or at least not strongly. Conservative, modern, radical. Lincoln fought to keep all stripes of Republicans united, not necessarily an easy task. He leaned to the conservative side, it seems, though led anyone who met him to walk away thinking that Lincoln believed what he himself believed.

Those who were against slavery varied too. I thought the US was divided between abolitionists and those who supported slavery. Ah, but that is too simplistic. The abolitionists were the radicals, the fringe element it seems in the North. Not all of those opposed to slavery were abolitionists, who wanted immediate, complete freedom of the slaves. Many advocated for gradual emancipation, where slaves would be freed over decades and generations—in one case slavery would die out by 1907!

And those supporting emancipation (not necessarily the same as being an abolitionist) didn’t always agree. Some advocated for compensated emancipation. In the modern era, compensation and slavery mentioned together refers to compensation paid to descendants of slaves for their labor. Nothing could have been further from this during the mid-1800s. Discussions, deals, and proposed laws covered how much to compensate slaveowners for their emancipated slaves. (In 1833, Britain abolished slavery and compensated slaveowners.)

Even if Americans believed in abolition or emancipation, they mostly did not want blacks to remain in the US. Blacks and white living in the same society was simply inconceivable to most Americans. The American Colonization Society was formed in 1817 and was going strong through Lincoln’s life. Lincoln himself was a strong proponent, unable to envision a non-white society. It wasn’t until near the end of the Civil War, after alternative lands to ship blacks to failed to be viable, that he quietly dropped the push for colonization. Of course, throughout all of this time very few blacks had any interest in emigrating. They saw themselves as Americans and wanted birthright citizenship and equality before the law in the US rather than colonization elsewhere.

I also had assumptions about emancipation, that freedom was tied to rights. But that was far from the truth. For Americans at the time, emancipation did not naturally lead to rights. Rights itself was a loaded term. Which rights? Most Americans who believed in emancipation or abolition agreed that blacks had the right to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Blacks were allowed to be free laborers. (At least in theory. In practice, things were a bit different.)

Few Americans wanted blacks to enjoy equality before the law or be citizens. And social equality? That was beyond anything that most Americans could handle. For blacks to be considered or treated as equals with whites was unthinkable to most.

The ways that rights were divided (economic, political, or social) and supported or not supported rather surprised me. I realized that I assumed that abolitionists were pro-black rights in my modern-day sensibilities. And yet the nuances make sense.

Despite Americans being opposed to slavery, they were still very racist. Racism was rampant whether in the South or the North, in abolitionist circles or colonization circles. This legacy haunts us today.

Lincoln, on the whole, comes out looking pretty darn conservation. He did not want a social or political revolution. He wasn’t looking to free the slaves or not free the slaves. For most of the time, abolishing slavery seemed irrelevant to him. He wasn’t necessarily more enlightened than his fellow countrymen. In fact, he seemed very cognizant of not getting ahead of public opinion. Abolitionist views slowly pushed him along, eventually dragging him to their views from decades earlier.

He really did what was expedient in a particular time and place. He let generals accept runaway slaves in some cases, turned a blind eye elsewhere, or removed them when they went too far by granting freedom. He weighed everything, I dare say, against what would have the best chance of keeping the Union together.

He did seem to carefully consider things and his thoughts did evolve with time—he eventually allowed blacks to serve in combat. But he did cling to ideas long past when he should have, such as the olive branch he extended to the border states for years to try to lure them into voluntary, gradual emancipation.

Often I wonder what post-Civil War America would have been like, what Reconstruction would have been like had Lincoln not been assassinated. Andrew Johnson, the racist Democrat from Tennessee who ascended to the presidency following Lincoln’s assassination, seemed to undo the promises of emancipation and the abolition of slavery. But after reading The Fiery Trial, I am not so sure that Reconstruction under Lincoln would have been the utopia I would have wished for. I suspect Lincoln would have been a lot more cautious, a lot more conservative than the myth of the Great Emancipator that arose after his death.

Podcast review: 1865

Since returning to Indiana, I’ve gotten more interested in Civil War history than I ever thought I would. In the mid-19th century, Indianapolis was apparently an up and coming town and Indiana a strong supporter of the Union (though arguably there were lots of divided families, especially in the southern end of the state). Historical sites in the state often hark back to Civil War days with some general or colonel in the family fighting in the Union Army.

In any case, given that experience and my interest in history, I was clearly primed as the target audience for the podcast 1865.

1865 is a serial podcast with a clear beginning and ending date given the subject matter: the immediate aftermath of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Think you know all about it? Well, probably not actually. At least I didn’t realize that Lincoln wasn’t the only intended target. Or that originally the plot wasn’t assassination but kidnapping Lincoln to demand the exchange for Confederate soldiers. Or, well, any number of points.

Rather than a rehash of facts or history, the episodes alternate between traditional radio dramas and a discussion about what was fact and dramatic license in the previous episode.

Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War, is the central figure in this retelling of the time from Lincoln’s assassination through the conviction of the Lincoln Conspirators. Three final episodes are devoted to Booth. While some items, like private conversations, are conjecture, everything is based as much as possible on primary sources (letters, diaries, etc.). It is a fascinating look at a moment of crisis in our country’s history and dispels the tidy myths we were taught about the Civil War, Lincoln, and the assassination.

My only wish was that the serial did not need to end. Or that the assassination never happened. What if Lincoln lived and Andrew Johnson, a racist southern Democrat hadn’t ascended to the presidency? Would Reconstruction have been different? Would the scars from slavery still be so prominent and fresh even now?